Stepping Back || Mental Health at Vanderbilt || (The 4th Thing I learned Sophomore Year)
This is a long post. Relationships become more complex as we grow up. We use other people, most times without realizing it. Coming to Vanderbilt taught me such an important lesson: it’s okay to step back. The experience with my friend described here happened the second semester of my sophomore year, my fourth semester at Vanderbilt.I held off writing this post til junior year though, because it was incredibly hard to think about, to talk about, and because sometimes I’m still not sure if I did the right thing, although every time that I’ve talked with other people on the other side of this relationship, they have reaffirmed my decision.
Also, huge disclaimer: this post is a collection of my views representing the situation of me and my friend, someone who had every symptom of Major Depressive Disorder. I have not disclosed his name, major, year, or any identifying details. And while both his situation and mine is something many people have experienced, this should not serve as any kind of rule book. But if you reading this post have struggled with mental health in the past, please consider 1) telling your parents if you haven’t already so 2) scheduling an appointment to work through anything unresolved or begin medication, if needed, before you come to Vanderbilt. I know that your parents may not listen, that they may not be able to schedule any kind of appointment or get any kind of medication. But it is definitely worth it to try, as college rarely fixes anything unresolved.
If you are a parent and you are reading this post, please reach out to your child before they leave for college and have an honest conversation about how they’re doing in regards to mental health. Listen. Be open. It’s so important that you are there for them. If you have worked through anything in the past, it’s a good time to let them know; loneliness is the biggest accompaniment to mental health issues.
Lastly, while Vanderbilt does struggle with addressing mental health issues, it is no different than any other university in that regard. Vandy has made huge leaps in this year – 2017 – of reworking the infrastructure of its mental health programs both at the Psychological Counseling Center (PCC) (linked to the Vanderbilt Medical Center) and the Center for Student Wellbeing (CSW) and all of the administration authentically care about their students. Although sometimes the situation is not always ideal, I know that it is improving.
In high school, I had some experience with friends who had struggled with mental health. In college, I had some very close friends who struggled with mental health. These were the things I knew:
1. Listening to a friend is incredibly important.
2. People rarely want solutions, so just listen to them
3. If you keep being there for them, although some mental health problems tend to stay with a person most of their lives, things will get better
In the spring of my sophomore year, things hit rock bottom with my closest friend. I had encouraged him in the fall to start visiting a therapist at the Psychological Counseling Center at Vanderbilt, a nonjudgmental place where there are trained therapists for students, available to every student regardless of insurance. I had also reached out to his friends and mentor, not disclosing any information, but just telling them that my friend needed their support right now and if they could hang out with them more, it would be great. Juggling 18 hours, many extracurriculars, and research, I tried to do all that I could, spending much time with him over the weekends, ignoring homework and obligations, trying to be the best friend that I could be.
There were many things wrong – he wasn’t being honest with his therapist at the PCC, he wasn’t being honest with his parents, he had, inherently, chemically, a serious psychiatric problem. When I was with him, he would comment on the things that he disliked about me: my hair, my friends, my faith, the way I talked. Many times, he’d ask me my schedule, and then demand to know why I wasn’t spending most of my free time with him. On my end, I thought that he was one of the few people who took the time to listen to me. I also thought that if I just kept being friends with him, he would get better, that he needed me and if I stopped being friends with him, something terrible would happen.
We both had the wrong view of the other, and I learned so much through our friendship – namely, that use is the opposite of love. Love implies sacrifice. Use is not sacrifice. When any kind of relationship becomes something where one person is using the other, like ours was, it’s not a good thing anymore.
Three weeks before the end of the school year, struggling to pass two classes, I told him that I needed a break. I stepped back. I said that the space in my head was too chaotic, too crazy – for weeks, most of my thoughts had been concerned with his being a danger to himself, as he told me that he felt like he was.
For three weeks, although nagging thoughts would come back while I studied, I was able to focus better for the first time in months. I was happier when I spoke to other friends. I was able to sometimes be positive. He tried to immerse himself in his own studies and other friends.
So what happened? Over the summer, we decided not to be friends anymore. He admitted that he had been viewing me as a positive presence that could pull him out of his depression, and when I didn’t, he became mad at me which caused him to make fun of me. He also said that because I listened to him about everything, he could just tell me how he felt, all the time, about everything from politics to the negative things about our friends to thoughts he should have been sharing with his therapist instead of pretending like everything was fine. I told him that I had often pictured him as someone who would listen, and that I trusted in my own strength to try to “fix” the situation by just listening to him; maybe if he wasn’t honest with his therapist, he would be honest with me.
But real friends don’t police your time or make fun of you or your friends in a cruel way. Real friends support you, not minimize your problems because of theirs. When relationships, from platonic to romantic become in the realm of these things or when the other person tries to police your time (and I don’t mean the “Why aren’t we hanging out” but more like “Why are you hanging out with Katie and not with me” and then ten texts about the same), it’s a case of use, not of love.
I was hurting when I came back that summer into the fall of my junior year. Though I was suddenly able to focus like I hadn’t all spring semester sophomore year and my grades shot up, I had so much free time, and I was so much happier, I thought a lot about the people I had in my life. Spending time apart over the summer and during that semester eventually allowed he and I to start small talking at parties and events where we would see each other, and we became casual friends again, not co-dependent, not unhealthy.
He went back to counseling and started being more honest with his therapist at the PCC. I started hanging out at the Center for Student Well Being, where there were some resources for me to learn more about mental health. When I stepped back, I was able to learn more. To add to my original list, I learned these things:
4. Many people come to college having not confronted mental health struggles before, struggles which are usually exacerbated by the stress of college
5. Mental health is a spectrum, and being friends with those with mental health struggles varies. For some, writing letters helps, or texting them to check in on how their day is going, or talking through things, or listening.
6. With both those things in mind, some people may appreciate you being there when they schedule their first appointment at the PCC or a wellbeing session at the CSW. They may need you to walk there or not. Just offering can be enough.
7. Again, listening, not fixing things, and although knowing that listening can help, not believing that just listening will.
8. If someone begins to treat you like their therapist, tries to control you in some way, or makes fun of you in a nonfriendly way for an extended period of time – and this goes for whatever a person is going through – it’s okay to stop being friends with them.
9. Everything leads to this: If by being there for a person, you are dragged down to such a level that all you can think about is their safety or mental health, you can’t be there for yourself when things look down, much less anyone else. To be there for anyone else, you need to be there for you.
Again, this was such a hard article to write. At times I felt unjustly selfish, not Christian, and incredibly guilty. But I hope that I did the right thing, and that this may be helpful to some of you. If you have any thoughts on this article – positive, negative, anything – please get in touch with me through email@example.com. I know mental health is such a tricky topic to talk about, and if you have any information that you would like me to know, I would be glad to receive it. Thank you so much for reading or skimming to the bottom of this article – I know it’s long! – and as always,